MARK Flanagan is back after shoulder surgery to give Salford Red Devils a lift for their Betfred Super League campaign that kicks off at home to Wigan Warriors on Friday, February 2.
And coach Ian Watson believes former Saddleworth Rangers’ player Flanagan’s absence in the second half of last season was one of the reasons why Salford suffered a nosedive in fortunes.
“Mark is a leader on the pitch who always puts his hands up to be counted. He is a strong part of the group and to lose a player like him has an impact on the team,” he said.
Flanagan, a 30-year-old loose forward, is preparing for his third season with Salford having moved from St Helens where he won the 2014 Grand Final.
And he believes Salford will be better equipped following the experiences of last season.
Flanagan explained: “We started well last season and reached the semi final of the Challenge Cup, but were then hit by injuries and we didn’t have a big squad and the experience to cope with them.
“We had the youngest squad in Super League, but they will be better for that experience.
“We have recruited well and are chomping at the bit to get the show on the road after a tough pre-season.”
Flanagan is excited by the capture of Aussie half-back/hooker Jack Littlejohn from NRL side Wests Tigers while Tonga winger Manu Vatuvei will begin his first full season with the club, though he was injured pre-season.
As for the main challengers for honours, Flanagan believes “all the usual suspects” will feature, the likes of Wigan, Leeds, St Helens while he expects Warrington to be much improved after a disappointing season.
Flanagan, who has been plagued by injuries in recent seasons, is already looking to a life beyond rugby.
In 2014 he and former St Helens’ team-mate Jon Wilkin opened Pot Kettle Black, a coffee shop off Deansgate, Manchester.
And such has been its success the pair are about to open a second one.
“We can’t play forever and don’t earn footballers’ wages so have to plan ahead which is what I am doing,” he explained.
Flanagan, who still watches Saddleworth Rangers regularly, has not forgotten his roots describing Oldham as a “proud RL town” with the profesional team having fallen on hard times during the last 10/15 years.
But he says you only have to look at the players the town has produced to realise how vibrant the game is in Oldham.